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The La Venta Inn in Palos Verdes Estates, with Santa Monica Bay in the background. (October 2019 photo by Sam Gnerre)

From the outside, Palos Verdes Estates is a 14,000-person slice of paradise nestled within the bustling county of Los Angeles. But within the walls of City Hall, Palos Verdes Estates is in turmoil, having seen a slow exodus of roughly half the city staff in less than two years.

Major positions such as public works director and city engineer have long remained unfilled; interim hires, meanwhile, have taken over other roles such as the community development director and police chief.

Even the interim roles have experienced turnover. A new acting police chief was just appointed this week after the former interim chief ran up against the end of his contract. And the city cycled through three interim city mangers until hiring Laura Guglielmo in June. The City Council parted ways with its city manager of six years shortly after elections in March 2019.

Guglielmo in an interview this week said the atmosphere at City Hall has improved since she arrived and the staff turnovers have stabilized. She planned to offer a plan to the City Council in the months to come on how it can restructure some of the positions and continue offering the best services for residents.

“Obviously the city has been through quite a lot of change and turmoil, but I think that it’s definitely on the upswing, and we’ve been able to start to rebuild our staff,” Guglielmo said. “It’s always difficult in an organization when there was a lot of staff turnaround at one time.”

Some of the staff departures, especially at the Police Department, occurred before December 2019, when some people spoke out about what seemed to be a city in crisis. City Council elections in March 2019 and a renewed look at whether the city should retain its Police Department or contract with the county created unease.

But there were other problems at City Hall, as well, and since December, the trend of employees leaving has continued.

The shakeup at City Hall now affects the services residents receive. Guglielmo said changes to a landscaping contract resulted in some areas not receiving as much attention as they did in the past. That included general landscaping and weed abatement for fire maintenance, something Guglielmo said she wants to correct.

While it might be a wealthy community, the city is rather cash-strapped without a substantial tax base other than property taxes. There are no hotels and barely any restaurants or markets that would draw tax revenue.

Supporting its own Police Department has created one of the biggest ongoing budget dilemmas for the city.  A $5 million parcel tax, passed by voters in April 2018, is falling short of meeting the department’s needs.

The City Council will face once again the question of whether to keep the city’s Police Department or contract out with the county. Either way, it will require residents to pony up tax dollars — possibly more than they are paying now — which is not an easy sell.

In part because of these uncertainties, the department has more difficulty than most hiring new recruits.

“I think the morale in the Police Department is higher now than it’s been,” Guglielmo said. “When I came on board, they were anxious and nervous.”

An ad hoc committee established by the City Council is currently examining the financial issues surrounding the Police Department with a report due back in the coming months.

“Certainly going forward I’m trying to create a culture where people feel valued and they know they have a future here as long they want,” Guglielmo said.

Outgoing City Councilmember Sanford Davidson, who recently lost his bid for a second term, called the atmosphere at City Hall a “toxic environment.”

“The city is just in such awful shape,” Davidson said.

Explanations for where that toxicity comes from or why the employees left vary depending on who you ask.

“The problem is that word gets out,” Davidson said. “Our city is often paying far less than other cities. But because Palos Verdes is so wonderful, people are willing to take the pay cut. But with this toxic environment people are not running to join us.”

There were also personality conflicts, according to Davidson and others, attributed in part to interactions several staff members had with Mayor David McGowan.

McGowan, in an interview this week, acknowledged that on two occasions those interactions resulted in tears on the part of a city employee but said part of it was an “insecurity in their job.”

“They were in over their heads and didn’t have the answers,” McGowan said. “That’s not the situation now.”

McGowan, who is a retired financial analyst and now works as a consultant, described some former employees in general as being in the “wrong position and they didn’t necessarily have the qualifications.

“We are upgrading the quality of the people we are hiring,” McGowan said. “We were skimping by and we weren’t able to achieve the expectations that the residents want.”

McGowan said the city, when he came into office last year, faced financial obligations with pensions and infrastructure issues — but had no planning or forward thinking.

“The city has done an amazing job, albeit much slower, analyzing the different parts of our city that require funding as well as looking at new revenue sources,” McGowan said. “We are not complete with that yet, but nearing completion.”

One of the new revenue streams to pay for beautification projects is coming through a foundation created by local residents with a goal of raising $500,000 by Christmas, which McGowan said they were already close to reaching.

Jim Roos, who will likely be a councilmember once the Nov. 3 election is certified, said he hoped to help bring people together after a divisive several years in the community. Local politics, mirroring the tenor of national debates, has become vicious, playing out most explicitly on social media.

“I’m hoping that I’ll be able to heal some of the division that we’ve had,” Roos said. “My observation is that there’s a lot more that the people in our community agree on than disagree.

“Some of the rancor that has characterized our city’s politics in the past few years has contributed a lot to the unease that employees have felt and to the exodus,” Roos added. “My hope is that the new council will be able to work together, with less posturing and committed to finding solutions that solve the city’s challenges.”

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